I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. — Blaise Pascal1
Are you comfortable being alone with your thoughts? Before you answer, recognize what it means. It means extended periods without access to all the “i-Stuff” (iPhones, iPads, iPods, iTunes, etc.). If you are comfortable being alone with your thoughts and untethered from all the electronic gizmos then you are likely in the minority—especially if you are under thirty years old.
Heidi Ledford, writing for Nature, describes how many young people feel about experiencing solitude:
Given the choice, many people would rather give themselves mild electronic shocks than sit idly in a room for 15 minutes, according to a study published in Science.2
Researchers performed an experiment where they asked college students to relinquish their cell phones and other electronic devices and sit alone in a sparingly furnished room for 15 minutes. The results seem to provide support for seventeenth-century mathematician and Christian apologist Blaise Pascal’s general contention about human beings.
Of the 409 students involved in the study, nearly half said they didn’t enjoy the time they spent alone with their thoughts. Moreover, when researchers repeated the experiment by allowing the students to be alone in their own homes, nearly one third of the students admitted that they didn’t stay idle and instead broke the rules out of boredom.
Another experiment allowed the students to have access to a machine that would give them a shock equivalent to a jolt of static electricity. Ledford reports:
When they were placed in a room to sit alone with their thoughts, 67% of the male participants and 25% of female subjects were so eager to find something to do that they shocked themselves voluntarily.3
For many people, and maybe especially for the young, contemplation equals boredom. And access to electronic toys seems to make matters even worse. It has been reported that some people handle their cell phone 100 to 150 times a day.
Receiving Life’s Most Important Call
As a reflective person by nature, I find spending time alone to process my thoughts a necessity. As a philosopher, reading, reflecting, and contemplating are essential daily activities of my life.
As a Christian, I certainly have a need to be part of the collective Christian community in partaking of Word and sacrament (Scripture and the Lord’s Supper) every Lord’s day (Sunday). Yet I also have a great need to spend time alone with the Triune God. This is my special time to be joyful, prayerful, and thankful in God’s presence as I contemplate the beauty and majesty of the Lord.
One of the blessings of living in the Western world is, of course, having access to modern technology. But with the blessing comes the challenge of being disciplined enough to not allow these electronic devices to divert us from the deeply needed virtue of contemplation.
In context, Pascal’s concern is that there are far too many powerful diversions in life that can keep human beings from asking life’s big existential questions. Yet Christians can also become diverted from the greatest good—spending time in contemplative prayer and worship of our Triune God.